Actors André Holland, Chukwudi Iwuji, and John Douglas Thompson recently discussed their experiences with Shakespeare’s famously tragic character in the panel Playing Othello at 92Y on March 7, hosted by Columbia University. Holland, recognized for much of his film and television work, played the role in a London production at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2018; Iwuji took on the role in The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production the same year. Thompson has played the role six times so far, most notably in Theatre for a New Audience’s 2009 Off-Broadway production at The Duke on 42nd Street. Moderating the panel were academics James Shapiro and Ayanna Thompson, both Shakespeare Scholars in Residence at the Public Theater.
Here are seven highlights from the discussion:
1. People often expect Black actors to focus only on playing Black characters in classical plays.
Holland: When I was in college and people discovered that I wanted to do Shakespeare, the first thing they said was ‘When are you going to play Othello?’ And that right there made me go, ‘I ain’t gonna never play it.’ Why are you putting that on me, that alone on me, out of all the 37 plays? So, I resisted it for a long time, but when the call came to do it at the Globe, that’s what made me say yes.
Iwuji: Nine out of 10 times, I’m more interested in the role you think I shouldn’t play as a Black guy than doing Raisin in the Sun. Because that’s my navigation through this. I want to do Ibsen, I want to do Henry VI, and I damn well want to do Hamlet. It’s not up to you to tell me I should do Aaron the Moor and Othello.
2. John Douglas Thompson’s first production of Othello faced local backlash.
John Douglas Thompson: There was a poster of me embracing Desdemona and it was quite provocative in the sense that it looked like we were two lovers, but it also looked like we were trying to kill each other. There was a threat there in the picture. People from the town ordered us to take the photo down because it was too provocative, a Black man and a white woman in that particular pose.
3. The actors debated if Shakespeare gave Othello enough depth. Holland believes not.
Holland: When I look at the page itself, I don’t see that interiority. The play starts with this beautiful speech and it sets it up as though we’re going to go down that path and then, for me, it goes a different way.
4. Othello is supposed to be a tragic figure, but often ends up a comic one—and there’s an explanation why.
Ayanna Thompson: I think the structure of this play, unlike any of [Shakespeare’s] other tragedies, is closer to a comedy because the audience knows more than the eponymous hero. That’s not true of Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear. The audience may disapprove of their decisions, but we have the same amount of information that they do, we learn things at the same time they do. That is absolutely not the structure of this play. And so, it does put the actor who is playing Othello at a severe disadvantage or at least in a comic position of knowing a lot less than the audience.
5. The role, and the play, require the right director.
John Douglas Thompson: For me, the production works best with a female director. I say that and I stand by that because I think a female director can kind of understand the plight of the character of Othello and really understand Othello’s journey and Othello’s story. Whereas, I feel when I have worked with male directors, particularly white male directors, they are far more likely to really lean into Iago and leave Othello to the actor’s own devices.
Iwuji: I said ‘If I’m going to do this, we’re doing this as the greatest love story that never happened. If I’m going to do this in one and a half scenes, which is all Othello has with Desdemona before it starts going wrong, we have to establish how much the two of these people loved each other. Because if we don’t do that, I’m not doing Othello and watching people bored to death for the last half hour of the play’—which is how long it takes between killing Desdemona and the friggin’ play ending. The only way people stay and stay with you is if they know a great love was destroyed. And the only way you don’t look an idiot is if that line ‘Love not wisely, but too well’ makes sense. And luckily for me, Ruben [Santiago-Hudson] is a romantic and that’s what he wanted to come to the play with. That’s what convinced me to do it.
6. Othello has a fraught legacy filled with white actors.
Ayanna Thompson, referring to Holland, Iwuji, and Thompson: I don’t think Shakespeare could have imagined these actors, first of all. This is a part that was written for a white actor in racial prosthetics.
Iwuji: Before Ira Aldridge, all the great white actors wanted to play Iago. And in 1833, Ira Aldridge played Othello despite the critics that slammed his lips that were too big to form the words. The crowd loved him. From that point forward, all the great white actors wanted to play Othello. So, I ask myself now, if I don’t play Othello, who the hell will?
7. John Douglas Thompson wants to play the role again. But to navigate the role’s issues, Thompson thinks he will only discuss Othello in public again after he next takes it on.
John Douglas Thompson: Given the times that we live in, this kind of discussion is making me put the role under a microscope that I, quite frankly, don’t want to put it under. It makes me question everything I want to do with the role moving forward, and I do want to play the role again. I don’t want things to hinder me, I don’t want thoughts to hinder me, I want to go into it free, open, and raw and build a production in the room. I understand the world we live in forces us to think about many other things. I have to think about race. Is this white guy playing Iago getting a bigger piece of the pie than me and why is that happening? Is this director focusing on Iago because the director is white, Iago is white, and they feel more comfortable dealing with him than with me? Do I have to take in the racialized aspect of Othello and what anti-Blackness now means? And I have to say, they’re incredible hindrances for me. Intellectually, if I think about them, I won’t do the role. The weight of them is just too much. To a certain extent, I try to keep it all of it away because I want to play the role and I don’t want to walk into the rehearsal room with all these thoughts because then I’ll be paralyzed. I won’t be able to make a move or make a choice… I hate to say this, but this will probably be the last time I will speak about doing the role until I’ve done it again.